I have a vivid memory of rhubarb from my childhood. I am sitting in a young friend’s garden on a summers day aged about eight years old and I am gnawing at large, tough, raw, green stems straight out of the ground and dipped occasionally in a cup of sugar stolen from the kitchen. Not to be recommended. But strangely I have shared this story with others and found this was common childhood practice in the seventies! I just remember my friend James’s face was really contorted – and yet we both carried on eating it. It makes me wonder if we develop that love of a strong sour/sweet combination earlier than we think.
And as well as that wonderful taste, there is the truly shocking pink colour. One of my younger sisters was very keen on eating a bowl of what she called “pink” but she turned her nose up when offered a bowl of rhubarb. We ate “pink crumble”, “pink tart”, and good old plain “stewed pink” with a little cream for quite a while before she cottoned on.
Early season forced Rhubarb provides beautiful colour and a promise of good things to come in the garden and the kitchen. Great rhubarb is easy enough to grow as long as you give in to its greedy nature for both space and for rich, well manured soil. With strange alien leaves and slender, tender stems it’s just beautiful to cook with.
I’m going to do sweet and savoury with this. First as a pairing with slow cooked roast pork with crackling where I team it with sharp apples for a super tart compote. It is perfect served on the side with crispy crackling to dip. And of course it adds great colour to a roast dinner. So, take a couple of stems of rhubarb and a peeled and cored Bramley apple. Roughly chop and place in a small saucepan with two teaspoons of sugar and a two tablespoons of water. Place them on a very low heat until they have stewed down to a soft mush. Taste, and add a very small amount of extra sugar if it really needs it, but for me the whole point of this is the fruity sharpness. Stir in a small knob of butter and its ready to serve.
For a lovely, easy pudding. I roast Rhubarb in honey with the juice of an orange, and serve with ginger cream and polenta cookies for crunch and texture. This is such a pretty plate. But because it can all be prepared in advance, its very simple and easy for entertaining. I love ginger with rhubarb so I add some finely sliced crystallised ginger to the final plate, and this is also a tribute to my Godmother Hannah , who served rhubarb with a shake of powdered ginger on top, which on first surprised inspection I thought was white pepper! I was being dutiful, so I dug in, and ever since have loved to pair the two.
Take three stems of rhubarb, and chop into 5cm lengths, place in a small, ovenproof dish with the freshly squeezed juice of one orange and three tablespoons of runny honey. Cover with foil and bake in a pre-heated at 180 C for about 15 minutes. Take out and leave to cool although to be honest this works equally well served warm.
For the polenta cookies, I take 80g butter, 80g sugar, 50g gluten free flour and 125g polenta. I rub these together in a bowl and then mix in one beaten egg and the rind of an orange. On a baking tray with buttered lining paper, I spoon the mixture in little blobs no bigger than a 2 Euro coin to make really sweet little cookies. They don’t take long to cook – about 7 minutes maximum at 180C. This recipe will make about 20 plus cookies.
The ginger cream is lightly whipped double cream in whatever quantity you like. Add sugar to taste and a glug of ginger wine. Plate them all up just before you serve.
My polenta cookies are based on an old Jamie Oliver recipe which I have used for years as an accompaniment to roast, poached or macerated fruit. The golden biscuits take flavours well and are great with lemon rind replacing the orange to accompany Strawberries or blackberries and delicious with baby figs poached in Marsala wine and cinnamon. I’m making them with gluten free flour but feel free to use standard flour.
Of course while that Roast pork is slowly cooking and crisping, you have to serve something to whet the appetite. So we are mixing the spare rhubarb, honey and orange syrup from your oven proof dish with a very good slug of Dingle Gin, over ice, topped up with Fevertree tonic and served with a segment of orange and a pretty stick of rhubarb for swizzling. All of which takes me right back to 1971 and that early memory of rhubarb. But I can tell you that this tastes a darned sight better.